How does Jane Austen's Emma demonstrate the various forms of irony?

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Jane Austen's Emma demonstrates various forms of irony, often with the character of Emma herself. At various points in the novel, Emma and situations in which she finds herself reveal verbal, situational, and dramatic irony.

Verbal irony, which often involves either sarcasm or a verbal pun, can be seen when Emma alludes to how dull Miss Bates is. Miss Bates says, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?” Then the author notes:

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Although this sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, Emma does not intend it to hurt Miss Bates’ feelings. Emma truly believes that Miss Bates will not pick up on the irony in her comments. When Knightly chides her, she tells him, “I dare say she did not understand me.”

Situational irony is seen in Emma’s relationship with Frank Churchill. Much of their conversation is about Jane Fairfax. Emma, unwisely, is open with Frank about her disdain of Jane. She complains to many people about Jane, probably because she is jealous of her. She specifically tells Frank that she and Jane have known one another since childhood and that they never really took to one another. She adds:

I hardly know how it has happened; a little, perhaps, from that wickedness on my side which was prone to take disgust towards a girl so idolized and so cried up as she always was, by her aunt and grandmother, and all their set. And then, her reserve—I never could attach myself to any one so completely reserved.

Franks responds:

“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.”

However, this is situational irony, as we learn later in the novel when Mrs. Weston reveals that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged the entire time.

Emma also shows dramatic irony in which the reader knows or understands something that the character does not. For instance, she tells Harriet that when she is older, she will not marry. She says:

... it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.

This is ironic because the reader understands just how foolish the comment is. Moreover, although perhaps the reader does not yet know that Emma will finally realize that she loves and wants to marry Mr. Knightly at this early point in the novel, it is fairly clear early on, especially to Jane Austen fans, that Emma will eventually want to be married, despite any protests to Harriet.

Another example of irony that the reader understands, but the character does not is when the author describes Emma's feelings towards Jane and notes that:

Before she had committed herself by any public profession of eternal friendship for Jane Fairfax ... Former provocations reappeared.

The reader understands that Austen is poking fun at Emma through the use of irony.

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Like Jane Austen's other social satires, Emma relies heavily on irony, especially situational irony. Listed below are examples of the novel's use of the major types of irony.

1. Situational Irony (coincidence; disparity between what one thinks and what actually is)--Emma views herself as an excellent matchmaker with keen skills in observation. However, she is too naive and imperceptive to be orchestrating others' private affairs. In every instance--including her own love life--when Emma tries to assert her opinions on whom someone should or should not marry, she fails miserably. She discourages her friend Harriet from accepting George Martin's proposal; in the end, Mr. Martin is the best match for Harriet. When Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill arrive in town, Emma completely misses the tension between them and is flabbergasted when she discovers that they are secretly engaged. Throughout most of the novel, Emma is unaware of her own feelings for Mr. Knightley (until Harriet shows interest in him), and does not observe that he also has romantic feelings for her. One of the most significant examples of situational irony is Emma's fixation on Harriet's portrait. The portrait shows Emma's version of Harriet, but not who Harriet truly is. It symbolizes Emma's idealistic view of the world around her, and she is often surprised when the real world reveals itself to be completely different from her imaginary one. 

2.Dramatic Irony(the audience or reader has knowledge of important information to which one or more than one characters are not privy)--InEmma,much of the situational irony mingles with dramatic irony. The reader can tell early on that Emma's faith in her power of observation is misplaced and, thus, predicts that Emma's meddling in others' love lives will not go well. Similarly, the reader knows before Emma that Harriet is truly in love with Mr. Martin and that he is a better match for her socially and economically than are any of Emma's picks for her friend.

3. Verbal Irony (sarcasm, understatement, play on words)--Although Emma does not rely upon verbal irony as much as does Pride and Prejudice, Austen still demonstrates her skill with understatement in this novel. When Emma is fallaciously evaluating her relationship with Frank Churchill, she continues "to entertain no doubt of her being in love him" (264). However, as Emma vascillates in regards to whether her feelings are actually love, Austen plays around with the definition of love. Emma might love Frank because she is constantly thinking of him and likes to have letters from him, but Austen uses these thoughts to demonstrate the fickle nature of many young women of her day, especially in regards to words such as love and marriage.

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